Those Who Run Towards Danger

A rescue worker reaches into a NYPD squad car following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

By David H. Schanzer

This essay is part of the exhibition catalogue for “Post 9/11: The Evolution of American Law Enforcement,” at the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, D.C. The author served as Guest Curator for this exhibit.

There are many searing images of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.

The most iconic of all, to my mind, is the photo of the second plane about to crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, a millisecond before the lives of so many and the history of the globe is about to be changed. The plane is hanging in airspace where no passenger plane has ever or should ever be, tilting gently to the left, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that the pilot is intentionally steering the plane toward Armageddon.

But the images that most stir my emotions are those taken after the collapse of the North and then the South Tower, with panic-stricken civilians, running to the best of their ability, trying desperately to avoid being eclipsed by the powerful cloud of debris billowing toward them. The fear on their faces is palpable. They are experiencing a terror unique in human history — trying to outrun the detritus of a 110-story building of stone, glass and metal that has collapsed upon itself and self-pulverized into billions of particles.

When I think of these images, I also reflect on how it is one of the privileges of living in an organized, decent society to be able to run away from danger without worrying about others who are in even greater peril. Virtually all of us enjoy this privilege because we have organizations within our society with members who are trained, committed and duty-bound to go in the opposite direction. They run toward danger while we run away. They are men and women who live in the same communities as we do — but when disaster occurs and people are in need, it is their job to find them and help them. We know of them as soldiers, firefighters, emergency medical and, the focus of this exhibit, the police. On 9/11, they were the only people moving toward southern Manhattan –- toward the danger — when the giant mass of humanity was moving in any other direction.

Like many of you, I have read about and listened to many harrowing accounts of what the morning of September 11 was like for the firefighters and police in New York City that were called into action and deployed to the World Trade Center complex. Upon arriving at the scene, they saw what television censors saved most of us from — the sights and sounds of bodies falling from over a thousand feet in the air crashing on to the roof of the lobby or the cement surrounding the North Tower. They all knew immediately the gravity of the situation and the many horrors that were occurring dozens and dozens of stories above them. Nonetheless, I haven’t heard or learned of a single account of a police officer saying to their boss, “Chief, I have a wife and three young kids at home, can I sit this one out?” The people who sign up for a career of running toward danger don’t have the luxury of doing risk assessments for their lives or limbs or what their death might mean to their families. Even those who might have had those thoughts didn’t express them — that is simply not the stuff they are made of. They follow their duty and accept their fate.

Then even after the horrors and unspeakable losses of 9/11, before the smoke had even cleared, these same people moved toward danger again — this time to search in the toxic ruins for survivors or more grimly to seek the remains of those who had been lost, including so many of their brethren. They did not wait for specialized protective equipment or scientific assessments of whether the site was safe. Everyone knew the site wasn’t safe — how could it be. The people who run to danger went anyway.

The exhibit at the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington D.C. is designed to bring you back 20 years to this extraordinary moment in history and explore the changes in policing that have taken place over this period in response to the challenges that the 9/11 attacks gave rise to. For adult visitors, the exhibit will remind us about how we experienced this tragedy and the emotions we felt that day and many years afterwards. For younger visitors, the exhibit will teach you about an important historical event, but also help you to understand many aspects of the world that you are inheriting. At its core, the exhibit honors the police and so many other that sacrificed their lives or health responding to the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Parts of the exhibit honor them by reminding us explicitly of what they did that day; other parts of the exhibit honor them by explaining how their sacrifice inspired a great national effort to prevent the horrors of 9/11 from ever happening again.

This national effort was necessary because the nation awoke on September 12 threatened by organizations and ideas that it did not fully understand that had successfully perpetrated unthinkable violence inside our borders. Americans instantly felt deeply vulnerable to a range of threats that it had never had to worry about before — ranging from acts of mass violence, dirty bombs, biological warfare, or wherever a fertile imagination could lead. Our national leaders called upon the police to be ready to respond if new tragedies arose. Police and other responders across the nation would need to be equipped and trained to run towards new, different, types of dangers to fulfill their duty to protect and defend their communities.

The 9/11 catastrophe also shifted the imperative of policing from responding to violence to preventing violence, a paradigm shift that placed a premium on gathering and analyzing intelligence, partnering with other agencies and across governmental lines, and working with communities to gain an early warning of possible threats. In this new paradigm, running to danger would involve finding and disarming those planning and plotting violence before they could inflict more harm upon innocent civilians.

Amid society’s focus on the sensational, it is infrequently noted how successful the national response over 20 years has been.

In the two decades since 9/11, there has only been one instance of al Qaeda or a like-minded group directing a successful attack inside the United States. That is a stunning accomplishment.

Over this same 20-year period, 107 people have been killed in the United States by so-called “homegrown terrorists,” that is individuals living in the United States inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology but having no direct operational connection to terrorist groups. While this is 107 victims too many, this figure represents a small amount of violence in a country where there are about 45 homicides daily (or 320,000 over 20 years). Whereas we lost almost 3,000 people on the single day of 9/11, we have only lost 5 people per year from al Qaeda-related terrorism since then. By any measure, our national counter-terrorism efforts have worked. Law enforcement has been only one part of this effort, but a critically important one. Those who did not live to see this success would certainly be proud of this achievement.

It also cannot be ignored that this exhibit is taking place during a period when the role of policing in America is under great scrutiny and a subject of national debate. This exhibit is neither the time nor place to shed light on this debate, but it does represent an important truth that must be part of our national discussion. Our exhibit ends with a memorial to the 72 police officers that were killed in the line of duty on 9/11 and the 300 others who have died from 9/11 related illnesses over the past 20 years. All over America, there are memorials to far too many other law enforcement officers who ran towards danger in their communities and lost their lives in the line of duty. There is much to debate about how police should operate in free and open society that aspires to treat all citizens with equal dignity and respect. But hopefully this exhibit will remind us how much our society depends on having people who are willing to run towards danger, and do so over and over again, to protect the people whom they serve.

David Schanzer is a professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

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Duke University is home to more than 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

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Duke University Opinion and Analysis

Duke University Opinion and Analysis

Duke University is home to more than 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-class faculty helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

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